By MICHAEL PERKINS
I HATE THE DISMISSIVE SNOBBISHNESS THAT CONDEMNS THIS OR THAT PHOTOGRAPHIC DEVICE as “not a serious camera.” I truly believe that almost any LightStealerBox, modest or fully tricked out, has at least the potential to deliver wondrous pictures, and I can’t think of anything that renders a camera more “serious” than that. But the recent resurgence of the old Polaroid name(along with the films and cameras that have been marketed under that legendary brand) has got me scratching my head.
Since rising from the ashes of the company built by the inventor Edward Land in the 1940’s, the “new” Polaroid has pumped out bright, simplistic photo toys bearing the old name and promising the return of the unpredictable, random fun of creating photos on the spot. However, apart from the admittedly giddy experience of generating shareables and momentoes, I see no sign that the current keepers of the Polaroid flame have taken a single step toward what was, under Land, a constantly evolving forward march toward innovation and technical improvement. Which is to ask, how can photographers take a camera seriously that is not regarded as such by its producers?
Land took the cumbersome development process of his first Polaroid films and eliminated the mess and bother to create a medium that was fairly responsive, pairing them with better and better cameras that were at once stylish and convenient. In the 1970’s, with the creation of Polaroid’s only true SLR, the SX-70, the company moved further beyond its innate novelty to actual artistic control, introducing custom settings, electronic exposure and quality lenses in a sleek package that won design awards and helped the company enter the premium market. Unfortunately, after that, the product line moved toward models that were easier to operate but admitting of less and less user input, and, by the end of its first life in the early 20th-century, Polaroid, embracing cheaper components and flashier packaging, was squeezing out glorified point-and-shoots that produced pictures that, well, looked like Polaroids, which is to say soft, low-contrast mush that just happened to develop quickly.
Cut to the present day, years after the digital revolution and several seasons since a passel of European art students reverse-engineered the defunct company’s system for film production (Polaroid had destroyed all its files on the subject before going bankrupt) and began marketing all-new cameras that took up where the firm’s last “One Step” models left off. Today, the re-introduced film remains a pale imitation of its namesake, which doesn’t really matter since their cameras are essentially playthings. And so, whereas it was difficult for photographers to create their best work even with the best of the original Polaroids, now it is fairly impossible to get even consistent results with the gizmos that bear that once proud name.
Some of this could have been predicted. Polaroid’s rebirth coincided with the 21st-century “Lomography” analog film craze and its love of technically defective “fun” cameras….the “shoot-any-old-way-and-see-what-happens, randomness-and-failure-are-arty-and- cool” school of thought. Polaroid 2.0 is also a reaction to Fujifilm’s Instax cameras, which produce instant images so small as to be good for little else than selfies (which seems to be the market for the things), the blearier and mushier the better.
Why do I care, enough to risk being written off as the creaky troll I probably am? Because Polaroid, at one time, held out the hope of combining instantaneous feedback (a key advantage of digital) with the artistic control of cameras that took themselves seriously and offered a true alternate path to higher-end photographic expression. Seeing the name now used to market murky party favors (at nearly $20 for eight exposures) saddens me, as does the proliferation of any camera that requires its users to leap-frog across endless work-arounds just to get a usable image. When a camera becomes an obstacle between a shooter and a good result, that camera is a bad camera.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SINCE I FIRST WROTE, several months back, about using my cellphone as a “sketch pad” for the first versions of images I would later finalize on a more adjustable camera (SLR, mirrorless, etc.), I’ve seen quite a few photographers confess to the same practice. As I said before, it’s not as if the cell isn’t a “real” camera, but that working with it is less mentally formal, less hemmed in by strict rules, than the cameras many of us cut our teeth on. At present, cells promote a more spontaneous, improvisatory approach to picture-taking: we produce work very quickly, and even our bombs have a short learning curve. We then make a second pass at the most promising “sketches” with cameras that both promote and reward deliberation.
Now I’m enjoying yet another variation on this formula as I play with the first instant film camera I’ve owned in nearly forty years. Optically, my Fujifilm Instax 90 is less precise than my mobile phone, and miles behind a full-function SLR. However, the “feedback loop” from snap to physical print rivals the turnaround time of a cell, and I have used some of these medium-fi images as dress rehearsals for shots that only my more advanced cameras can properly finesse. The main difference here is working with film, which translates to how fast and how freely I shoot.
Cels are technically limited, but you can shoot endlessly for free, so it’s tempting to experiment without regard to anything except the moment: very intuitive. By comparison, film is finite. More importantly, your shots, both home runs and strikeouts alike, all cost money. If you’ve never shot film (ya young whippersnappers!) it’s really a trip learning to “budget” your shots, weighing all the stuff you want against the physical limit of shots you actually have to work with. Old guys like me had lots of reasons to desert film for digital, but being freed from the tyranny of the wallet was my personal Numero Uno.
So, if you follow this strange line of reasoning, here’s where we stand: an instant film camera gives you a fast result, but the low volume of output (just ten shots per pack of Fuji Instax Mini film) and the cost (nearly a dollar per shot) means that you will be shooting slower and more deliberately than with a cel. You’ll be actively planning your shots, editing your projects on the fly, and producing a smaller yield of “possibles” to refine with a higher-end camera. Or you might do such a bang-up job with your film sketch pad that you produce your ” keeper” right then and there. In the two cases shown here, the Instax shot shows me that the central idea (the punctured shrink wrap atop the carton of Coke) can be improved by including a spent bottle on the side and tightening up the frame, allowing my Lensbaby Velvet 56 to show the textural variances in surface tension, something the Instax isn’t precise enough to do. The Lensbaby can also deliver a wider range of tones and deliver sharper focus, albeit within a soft glow.
Will this tortured method ever become your own? Really doesn’t matter. Your results may vary, as the man says, because they are yours. There are many routes to the promised land. Take the expressway or slog along the old dirt road. Just get the shot.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
INSTANTANEOUS PHOTOGRAPHY, or at least the analog experience of rapidly developing film photography (in the digital era, all pictures are ‘instant’) has always been more about emotional excitement than technical satisfaction. In terms of lens and camera design, the idea of “instant” has consistently been more powerful than the reality.
The recent “second wave” of instant camera and films, now spread across three main companies (Polaroid Originals, Lomography.com, and Fujifilm) reproduces the thrill aspect that typically accompanies nostalgia, but also seems, at least in the case of Fujifilm, to actually move the technology from its take-it-or-leave-it roots, attempting to design gear that is substantially more attuned to photographers’ needs than a plain vanilla shutter button. Moreover, Fujifilm has also created a film which beats the competition in both color rendition and price point.
The Fuji Instax Mini system, which produces pictures of 62mm x 46mm versus the historical 79mm x 79mm dimensions of the Polaroid, includes more than a half-dozen models that, while hardly full-function by any realistic yardstick, do afford shooters a variety of fixed-aperture shooting modes, including macro, landscape, “party”, and “child” options as well as a “bulb” mode for time exposures (of up to ten seconds), a self-timer, and even a double exposure setting. Like Pinocchio, the Instaxes are not yet real boys, but they can sorta kinda walk and talk like one.
As for the competition, Polaroid Originals (the zombie resurrection of the old Polaroid carcass) still hasn’t perfected its watery-looking color film (or its horrendous $2-per shot cost) but has begun making new cameras again. Spoiler alert: they’re a crude reboot of the old One Step system, which is to cameras what Frankenstein was to smooth motor skills. As for the instant camera line from Lomography, they continue that company’s well-established tradition of charging you a stiff excise tax on hipness which is totally unwarranted by the product’s actual performance.
The images you see here, examples of double and time exposures, are both from a Fujifilm Instax Mini 90 NeoClassic, the top of the company’s line and the closest thing that currently exists in the instant universe that can reasonably be called a camera instead of a toy. Hey, it’s a start. The first golden age of instant photography undoubtedly produced a lot of smiles. The technology’s second act could finally produce cameras worthy of all that global good will. Or it could all vanish again. In an instant.